Monique Liston: creating a positive narrative with dignity
By Vondell Moore
Monique Liston is an educator, innovator and changemaker. She is a researcher working toward getting her PhD at UWM. She was born and raised in Milwaukee and completed her undergraduate degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Monique says that her job right now is “being a black woman,” learning what that means in the world today and exploring how she can make the world a better place. She has always been very involved in activism. Currently, Monique works with schools and local leaders to see how we can make dignity a more prominent part of how we evaluate the work we do in organizations and communities.
Vondell: What do you think is necessary or vital to make a change in Milwaukee?
Monique: Vital? Community. Maybe even before that, is a positive narrative. That’s like the most important thing. That’s the most difficult thing, to make sure that you’re saying positive things about Milwaukee, to make sure everyone’s saying positive things about Milwaukee, reinforcing positive things about Milwaukee, because it’s so easy to take up bad energy. That energy has really taken root in the city. So if we’re talking about doing any of the work we need to do, we need to start talking positively about why we’re here. Like, man, I love Milwaukee. I love this place. I think this place is beautiful. I think the people are beautiful. I think there are tremendous things happening here, but that has to be the constant narrative. That’s the vital part.
V: What else do you think could help make changes to Milwaukee?
M: I do think that community-building is something that is needed, and not in the loose sense. Not like, oh, we all went to an event on Saturday! We feel good! But community is being able to share in each other’s joys and successes, share in each other’s pain, and helping each other build to the same thing. I think the more opportunities people have to build small, close-knit communities, and I’m not talking about with your family, I mean with your neighbors and other people. Once you start to build that kind of community, you get to protect yourself, you get to find additional ways to support each other. It’s the little, meaningful problem solving that helps people.
V: Personally, I think the main problems are misconceptions, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. Everybody seems to take one thing the wrong way. Like if you wanted to say hi to someone but they thought you were muggin’ and then all of a sudden there’s a problem.
M: That’s exactly it, that miscommunication, misinterpretation of what it is. And I think that happens too, when we talk about the segregation that happens here in Milwaukee. I see that in the schools I work in, white teachers misinterpreting what black students are doing, or something like that, and then blaming their attitude or their anger when the student may just have a different demeanor. But if you’re not building that kind of close community with other people, you assume the worst. You assume that they’re different, that they’re other, that they’re not here for you, as opposed to figuring out who each other are.
V: What in the past or about the past have you learned to help you fight today?
M: One of the biggest things that I did, was I studied organizations that have existed and what they did to get to where they are. I spent a period of time in my life studying the Black Panthers, I mean really studying them. I read every book I could find, went to movies, went to art exhibits, tried to understand who they were and how they moved through the world. What I got from that was understanding how many different, particularly black groups, have organized. What was happening here in Milwaukee with the Commandos, understanding that each little pocket of the country had their people who were doing movement work, and connecting to those people who built certain things. Because that is the hardest thing, to build a system. I focused on learning who were the people who didn’t just talk about it, but were actually about it. I learned from the people who asked, how can we make this change? How can we create our own system? How can we make sure we take care of ourselves? It really comes down to who you’re organizing with. What you do as an individual means nothing. It’s what you’re doing with your family, with your community, with your organization that makes the real change.
V: What exactly is it that you research related to dignity and the dignity of black men?
M: At the end of the day, does an event, a workshop or a person showing up change our community? Nah. That’s not enough. What we need to talk about is how do these people feel about themselves, and how do they feel as a part of their community. When we say that, we start holding ourselves accountable to a new standard of stuff. So when we’re talking about dignity, we’re talking about that worthiness that you get from being in community with others, and being seen as worthy within that community, so understanding yourself as worthy and seeing everyone around you as worthy because that community is built. We put that concept together with dignity.
So in my research, I teach organizations about the concept, and then allow them to look at their practices, everything from how they deliver their services and programs, how they treat young people, and how they treat parents. So if we start putting dignity in the middle, it’s like, oh, to dignify this person means I’m supposed to see who they are first and then make judgements about it based on what I actually know, not on what I assume I know. The dignity framework I work on helps organizations see what that would look like in their organization.
V: How do you visualize a Milwaukee that has been changed and has been made better?
M: I think I already see a Milwaukee that is being changed for the better. I think that’s already in existence. As long as Milwaukee starts continuing to push it, like my dignity deserves to be at the center of determining how our public school system works, how our city government works, how our healthcare system works, then we’ll be on track to saying, ‘Like this city is different, yo. What’s happening in Milwaukee is really game changing… This whole thing is changing people the people at the center of it are putting their worthiness at the center of how everything works.’